70 years ago, following the Red Army’s retreat from what was then eastern Poland and is now western Ukraine, as they were pushed back by the German invaders, a wave of pogroms swept the cities and townships of the area, which was populated mostly by Jews. They were instigated by the German military command, turning public outrage at the mass executions carried out by the Soviets before they departed, when a total of 22,000 people (some 10% of them Jews) were shot dead, into retribution against the Jewish population.
Exploiting the Ukrainians’ outrage at this horrendous crime at the hands of what Nazi propaganda called the “Jewish” regime, the Germans had apparently hoped the pogroms would have greater impact. However, those whom survivors accused of having instigated and carried out the pogroms also included Ukrainian nationals. While the Lviv pogrom  of 1 July 1941 was the biggest, survivors of less significant ones, such as the pogrom in the town of Kremenets, recalled similar scenes: “In Kremenets the Soviets killed 100-150 Ukrainians. After some of the exhumed bodies were found to be skinless, rumours spread that the Ukrainians had been thrown into tubs of boiling water. The Ukrainian population responded by capturing 130 Jews and clubbing them to death…” (Raul Hilberg); “I spotted my classmate Esther among the Jews identifying the bodies in the hole in the ground, and realised she was doomed. There was shouting and moaning in the courtyard, as many people recognised their nearest and dearest.” (Larisa Tomchuk-Medvedchuk). The Germans thoroughly documented the Ukrainian participation in reprisals against the Jews to make sure responsibility would be shared with the local population.
A provocation from Odessa
70 years later Lviv, with its reputation as the most “nationalistic” city in Ukraine, is being reminded of the less illustrious chapters in its history by, of all people, members of the pro-Russian chauvinist Rodina [Motherland] party (link in Russian) . The party’s name is more symbolic of the link with the Russian and Soviet empires than of patriotic sentiments towards Ukraine. Rodina is based in Odessa and its leader is local council deputy Igor Markov. It specialises in spectacular events, such as the expulsion of NATO vessels from Crimea; picketing “Sea Breeze” , the joint military exercise with NATO; or supporting Ruthenian separatism  in Transcarpathia. And now Jews Against Anti-Semitism, a committee financed by Markov (and filled with his people) has announced its intention to “defend Holocaust victims from fascism and its henchmen”… Until this announcement this organisation was known only for championing the erection of a Stalin statue in Odessa  and for demanding that he be declared … the world’s No.1 Righteous Man.
In June 2011 Jews Against Anti-Semitism announced that 150 of its members would come to Lviv on 22 June, the anniversary of Hitler’s attack on the USSR, and stage on the Mount of Glory an event “against the policy of fascism, anti-Semitism and the holocaust in memory of the Soviet nation and of all mankind, in memory of the Jews who perished in the ghettos and concentration camps at the hands of monsters – Ukrainian nationalists, followers of Shukhevych, Bandera  and other fascist scum”. They presented their application for a permission to hold the event in [primarily Ukrainian-speaking] Lviv in Russian, spelling the word Holocaust with a small “h”. With Rodina’s successful 9 May Victory Day provocation , aimed at engineering a confrontation between nationalists and Soviet veterans, still fresh in people’s memory, well-known and respected Jewish organisations of various kinds in Ukraine were outraged.
Iosef Zisels: “It is in the interest of Russian authorities to present western Ukraine to the world as aggressive and anti-Semitic, and the Jews as Stalinists.”
Leader of the Congress of Ukrainian National Communities Iosif Zisels said in an interview with Radio Liberty that this was a “planned provocation since it is in the interest of Russian authorities to present western Ukraine to the world as aggressive and anti-Semitic, and the Jews as Stalinists.” Zisels further stressed that Jews Against Anti-Semitism does not belong to the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Ukraine (VAAD) . Aleksandr Feldman , President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and member of Parliament (elected as a member of the Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition bloc, but now representing President Yanukovich’s Party of Regions), issued the following statement: “This kind of provocation has nothing to do with the Jewish community, with the fight against anti-Semitism and fascism or with commemorating the victims of war.” Feldman regards this as a “crude attempt to discredit the Jewish community and drag Ukraine into fanning an intra-regional and intra-national conflict”. The politician appealed to legitimate Jewish organisations to publicly condemn dubious ventures of this kind.
Aleksandr Mikhelson, a correspondent for the journal Ukrainski tyzhden’  (Ukrainian Week) tried to reach the chairman of Jews Against Anti-Semitism, Rozalia Tsenter, by telephone. Quite predictably, she was “not available” and the call was taken by Aleksandr Eryomenko who introduced himself as the Committee’s secretary. His response made it clear that the Committee was interested not so much in the victims of the Holocaust as in a desire to demonstrate that living conditions in an independent Ukraine are much worse than they were during the war. Vaad’s investigation has shown that Eryomenko is linked to the ZUBR  movement (the acronym stands for ‘For Ukraine, Belarus and Russia’) and that he also chairs the organization “The Eye of the Diamond”, notorious for its ultra-nationalist, fundamentalist Orthodox and anti-Semitic attitudes. Both organizations are financed by Igor Markov.
At least partly because of general outrage, Jews Against Anti-Semitism never made it  to Lviv. As Viacheslav Likhachev, an expert on intra-national relations and social movements in the post-Soviet space, told me: “This episode was quite significant, showing that a sufficiently strong educational campaign can succeed in facing down this kind of provocation. It even turned against the organizers since everything came to the surface.” There is another explanation that sheds light on the refusal to travel to Lviv not only by the “pseudo-Jews” but also by representatives of the Communist Party, the Odessa mayor’s office and chairman of the Kharkiv region administration Mikhail Dobkin, who had also sought to “defend history”. Mikhelson believes that while Yanukovych is in the midst of difficult renegotiations on gas agreements  with Russia, “official Kyiv has no interest in playing into the hands of its northern neighbour by showing support for ‘ritual’ Ukrainophobes.” In all likelihood an order came from above not to stage a provocation.
The bizarre messages of the Odessa-based organisations associated with the pro-Russian Rodina party:
a June 2010 demonstration proclaims Stalin to be the best man in world history – a view not entirely consistent with a campaign against anti-Semitism. (Photo: Viktor Pavlov, reproduced with permission)
On 22 June the commemoration of the victims of war took place peacefully in Lviv. Is this to the credit of the city’s inhabitants, or rather those who had “put in the boot from above”? Tarik Cyril Amar , former director of the Lviv Centre for Research in Urban History and currently visiting professor at Columbia University, comments: “Many Lviv inhabitants do not share anti-Semitic and nationalist stereotypes but they have not managed to get organised and make themselves heard, except for a few marginal cases. Unfortunately, the people of Lviv tend to react too emotionally to neo-Soviet provocations, while remaining unaware of more significant political issues of a right-wing nature and nationalist distortions of history. The people of Lviv, as genuine patriots, are capable of doing more to demonstrate what kind of nationalism is not acceptable in their city.”
The need to come to terms with the past
Is Ukraine safe from future provocations of this kind? Viacheslav Likhachev recalls a few rather successful attempts at playing the “Jewish card”: before the Orange Revolution a court shut down  the Ukrainian-language opposition paper with the largest circulation, “Silski Visti” (Village News), which had been appearing since Soviet times, for publishing an openly anti-Semitic article. And during the last presidential election in 2010, a potential winner, Arseny Yatseniuk , was pushed down to fourth place when rumours were spread  that he was Jewish.
Ukrainian society apparently needs to be ready for the challenge of Ukrainian anti-Semitism being presented as a natural phenomenon. That is why Ukraine needs a discussion, similar to the discussion that has taken place in Poland on the events in Jedwabne in 1940  and the postwar pogrom in Kielce . Currently Ukrainian historiography mostly turns a blind eye to certain “negative” historical facts. For instance, the Centre for the Research on the Resistance Movement in Lviv, under its director Vladimir Vyatrovich, is more likely to discuss the role of Jewish doctors in the UPA  [the Ukrainian Insurgent Army] than the Lviv pogrom, even though the latter took place well before UPA appeared.
The director of the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies , Anatoly Podolskyi, says: “Researchers at Vyatrovich’s centre lack what German historians call the ‘issue of coming to terms with history’. It is necessary to look at the past in perspective and to admit certain things, rather than just saying we are responsible for what was bad about it – we are responsible for the memory of the past.” Podolskyi stresses that he is also against the continuation of the Soviet tradition that indiscriminately branded the entire Ukrainian liberation movement as anti-Semitic: “If only those researching the OUN  [Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists] and UPA would say calmly that yes, unfortunately Ukrainians did take part in anti-Jewish actions, it would be fine. We need an honest and balanced discussion.” This, however, raises another question: is anyone in Ukraine interested in discussions of this kind or, on the contrary, is history doomed to be used for political and provocative goals?
Likhachev cites the example of the Russian senator Boris Shpigel  who – whenever the Kremlin needs to cast a neighbour (Estonians, Georgians, Ukrainians) in an unfavourable light – immediately starts accusing  them of “fascism” and “anti-Semitism”. “There are quite a few people in Ukraine working for Shpigel,” he believes. Ukraine does not understand that an uneducated Ukrainian society benefits the patrons in the Kremlin but not Ukraine. The very subject of the Holocaust continues to be taboo, as it used to be in the Soviet era: “This issue has not yet been internalised,” Anatoly Podolskyi laments. “The Ukrainians have only a superficial knowledge of the fact that the Holocaust happened. They say: “That’s ‘their’ history.” They don’t perceive it as part of their own.”
With such patchy knowledge of Ukraine’s history in relation to the Holocaust, truth and reconciliation is impossible. What will solve this? Tarik Cyril Amar suggests that a major international conference be organised, with the participation of top foreign scholars of Ukrainian nationalism, including strong critics: “At the very least this would demonstrate the wish to openly admit existing problems”.
Republished from our partner organization Open Democracy Russia, where it appeared on 12 September 2011.